Cybernaut 

Your next computer

If you’ve bought a computer in the last few years, chances are it has between two and four processor cores, either on a single processor, or on two processors working in parallel. It may be 64-bit architecture — which allows processors to handle chunks of code twice as big as 32-bit systems — but chances are your processors are 32-bit because, honestly, there’s not much yet in the way of software that’s been written to maximize 64-bit processing, and that extra capacity is wasted running programs optimized for 32-bit. As long as 32-bit systems account for the majority of computers companies aren’t going to invest in major rewrites of their software.

Having more processors under the hood will boost your computer’s processing power. Just as a larger engine can pull a larger vehicle, more powerful processors engines can handle bigger files, bigger applications, more applications running at once, and all the physics required by games and multimedia.

In this vein, the Cell processor is considered the future of computing because of architecture that allows for seven processors and a central controller to exist on a single board. Each cell of the processor could be assigned different tasks, distributing the load in a way that is faster and more efficient than other multi-processor configurations. The Cell was designed for gaming, but is being used more for supercomputing and scientific applications.

The main problem with the Cell is the fact that you have to write software that specifically takes advantage of the processor’s architecture to realize any benefit, which is why it will be slow to go mainstream. The Cell is not x86, which is Intel’s standard for processing, and therefore it’s not compatible with most desktops or laptops, or any of the software out there.

Besides, the Cell appears to have been leapfrogged in performance by a system with fewer processors but a superior architecture, Intel’s new Core i7 chips (www.intel.com)

These are essentially duo and quad core processors, but they are designed to be overclocked to function like four or eight-core processors — something made possible by a 45-nanometer architecture that is both energy efficient and produces low heat, and other design tweaks. The only way to get that kind of a performance out of a processor before the i7 was to submerge it in non-conductive oil or buy a box with a liquid cooling system, but the i7’s capability seems to grow with the flow.

With an on-board memory controller and memory, instead of connecting to a memory chip elsewhere on the motherboard, bus (information transfer) speeds are also accelerated. The processor itself is modular and will allow you to unplug the chip and upgrade to an eight core design that’s currently in the works (presumably that can be overclocked to the equivalent of 16 processors), as well as to increase memory. That gives i7 systems some real longevity, and could save you a few dollars in the long run.

Without getting into what all this means for gamers and people with bulky multimedia and 3D rendering applications, early tests show that the i7 kills pretty much every other chip on the market for speed, frame rate, and multitasking. It’s also 64-bit, which will matter more when there is more 64-bit software on the market.

Right now the price could be hefty. There aren’t many motherboards out there equipped to handle the Core i7, so you’ll likely have to build or purchase a new system around this processor rather than upgrade your existing desktop. If you were going to do this anyway, then the price is about right. Companies buying these things bulk can get the most basic four core model for $284, the mid-range model for $562 and the Extreme Edition for $999.

And the competition? Chipmaker AMD (www.amd.com) has fallen behind in recent years and was already playing catch-up when the i7 hit the market last week. Their fastest quad core processors in the last generation were slower than Intel’s, and they don’t have anything in the works that matches the i7 just yet.

Still, you can’t count AMD out. Their strength has been offering comparable chips for lower prices, and focusing on the average customer instead of the high-end user — although lots of high-end users swear by AMD as well.

Performance ultimately means less than sales — the company that has the biggest installed base wins because no company wants to make software that the majority of customers out there can’t use.

The bottom line is that some people need the i7 chip, while most of us just want it. The key is to know the difference, but make sure your next system can be upgraded for it — just in case.

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